Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
by Peter Gorman and Bill Weinberg
The 1990s were the decade when police overreach in the name of the War on Drugs shredded the Constitution. And those most frequently caught in the Drug War web were not the ones legislators claimed to be going after. It was a decade which saw mothers, fathers, smalltime dealers, medical marijuana users and even children caught in a legal web that has grown so large that no one is truly immune to the new tactics being utilized by Jonny Law in the name of keeping us from the danger we pose to ourselves.
The forfeiture of illegally gotten goods is a tradition that goes back to British maritime law. But it wasn’t until the passage of the 1984 Omnibus Crime Bill that United States police agencies involved in the forfeiture of property were allowed to sell the assets they seized and keep the monies they raised on them. That provision of the 1984 Crime Bill, bolstered in 1986, has led to police abuses unheard of in the history of the United States.
Though tens of thousands were affected, among the most noteable were 68 year-old Byron Stamate, a medical-marijuana provider whose common-law wife killed herself in 1994 rather than testify against him in an asset-forfeiture case stemming from his providing medicine for her. Don Scott was a Ventura county rancher who was shot and killed by police in an unfounded raid on his home—a raid which was later found to be fueled by the authorities’ desire to forfeit his valuable ranch. Then there was Marsha Simmons, a black woman in Washington, DC who repeatedly called police to have them remove her crack-selling grandchildren from in front of her house, only to have the police respond by seizing her home because her grandchildren had sold crack on the property.
Two of the worst forfeiture-abusing prosecutors in the nation in the ‘90s were “The Dragon Lady” Leslie Ohta, and “Forfeiture King” Nick Bissel. Ohta, a Connecticut prosecutor, once tried to seize a Hartford family’s home on the basis of the police having found a syringe on the premises, but never moved against herself despite her own son having been arrested several times for selling marijuana and LSD out of her own home. Nicholas Bissel, a New Jersey prosecutor, got so addicted to the money and power afforded by forfeiture that he falsely set up citizens just to forfeit their property. When caught and found guilty of illegal activity, Bissel fled New Jersey and killed himself in a Las Vegas motel room.
Oops! Wrong Address
A family in Ohio is at home singing carols on Christmas eve when masked men in black wielding machine guns kick down the door and wrestle Dad to the ground: the agents got two digits of the address mixed up. An elderly Latino man in Texas is shot to death in his sleep when police raid his house; the informant who provided the address lied.
These are not isolated incidents. Goaded on by the promise of big forfeitures to beef up police budgets, local anti-drug forces from the inner city to the redneck heartland are knocking down doors first and asking questions later. Often they rely on paid informants who lie to get a share of the loot. Sometimes they just read the address wrong on the warrant. Innocent residents pay with their Fourth Amendment rights, the sanctity of their homes—and sometimes their lives.
Among the most noteable: Accelyne Williams, a Methodist minister from Boston who died of a heart attack after wrestling with members of a SWAT team who had raided the wrong apartment. Anna and Jerry Roman, a Brooklyn couple who, with their three children, were terrorized by a New York drug squad acting on an informant’s bad tip. Donald Carlson, the vice president of a Fortune 500 company was shot in the lung when DEA and Customs agents mistakenly raided his home on an unverified informant’s tip.
Police As Hit Men
One of the peculiar developments that has occurred because of the terror engendered in the American public by the War on Drugs has been the development of special Drug Task Forces which combine the manpower of federal, state and local agencies, and frequently seem to operate without oversight. Hundreds of assaults on innocent people have been catalogued by these paramilitary police squads, and several deaths involving alleged low-level dealers have been racked up by them as well.
Gary Shepherd, a Kentucky pot grower was killed by police for refusing to allow them to uproot his small marijuana garden; John Hirko, a 21-year-old unarmed Pennsylvania man with no prior offences was shot to death in his house by a squad of masked police dressed in ninja-styled uniforms; John Fellin, an alleged small-time pot dealer was shot several times and killed by a squad of unmarked police officers who had burst into his home while he slept. Police in all instances were found legally justified in committing the homicides because of the “no-knock exception” to the Constitution in cases involving the execution of search warrants on drug suspects.
Children Caught in the Middle
The unsung victims in the War on Drugs are the children used as weapons against their parents by police and prosecuting agencies—something those of us who grew up in the Cold War were told only the Commies did. While many articles have been written about the abandoned or abused children of drug addicts, few people realize how frequently children are used as leverage to secure arrests and admissions of guilt—often where there is none—from parents terrified their kids will be taken away from them if they don’t cooperate with the law.
In 1991, Crystal Grendell, from Maine, was an 11-year-old who, after attending a school program telling of the horrors of marijuana use, told the police officer who ran the class that her parents occasionally smoked cannabis, only to discover that her admission led to their arrest and the destruction of her family. In 1993 in Vermont teenagers Jessica and Alice Manning, who, when their parents were caught in a forfeiture sting and sent to jail, were encouraged to turn against their parents in a drug sting so that the family property, in their names, could be forfeited to their state-appointed guardians. In Georgia 8-year old Darrin Davis, made an admission to a teacher after an anti-drug lecture that there was white powder in his parents’ bedroom which led to their arrest and incarceration.
From 1875 until 1915, cannabis tinctures were the most popular medications in the United States. Utilized for everything from gout and asthma to teething pain and epileptic seizures, the essence of the Cannabis sativa plant was considered a true miracle herb. But the vested interests of the pharmaceutical industry, coupled with a lurid propaganda war waged by William Randolf Hearst on blacks and Mexicans who smoked cannabis, demonized marijuana and decreased cannabis use. The final blow to marijuana as medicine occurred with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which subjected marijuana to such high taxation that it was no longer a medical option.
But in 1976, a speech-writer and glaucoma sufferer from Washington, DC, Robert Randall sued the federal government for access to cannabis, now a recognized treatment for glaucoma. He won, and the government was forced to provide it for him. Since then, hundred of thousands of people suffering from a wide variety of illnesses have learned of marijuana’s medical efficacy. Unfortunately, the federal program was shut down by DEA intervention and the use of marijuana as medicine remains illegal in all but two states, so thousands of those people have found themselves caught in the crosshairs of the Drug War.
Jimmy Montgomery, an Oklahoma paraplegic with no criminal record, received a life sentence for possession of less than one-and-a-half ounces of medical marijuana. Another Oklahoman with no prior arrests, arthritis sufferer Will Foster, received 93 years for a small medical-marijuana garden he had in his basement, a term that has since been reduced to 20 years. And medical-marijuana provider Tom Brown received a 10-year sentence for growing marijuana for medical use, while Todd McCormick, a cancer sufferer, currently faces 10 years for growing marijuana for medical use.
Another area where government overreach has gone out of control invilves the federal Mandatory Minimum sentencing laws—intended to “level the playing field” of time given for drug crimes on a federal level.
Donald Clark, a pot grower from Myakka, Florida, is serving a life sentence as the “kingpin” of a marijuana-growing operatio for having taught his neighbors how to grow marijuana. David Correa is a former commercial airlines pilot who received life-without-parole as mastermind of a “cocaine ring,” based on the testimony of six witnesses who couldn’t identify him and despite the fact that the only cocaine ever found in the case was supplied by police and alone would have gotten Correa a maximum of less than four years in jail.
Sentencing is out of line on the state level as well: Bobby Vik, a low-level repeat offender who is in his 15th year of a 30-year sentence for the sale of less than $40 worth of pot in Missouri; and Stephen Corbin, who’s serving a 25- year sentence for a first-offence sale of less than six ounces of marijuana.
While cases of individual police officers being corrupt have always existed, the goad of big money generated by the black market drug-trade—either legally through forfeiture, or illegally through protection rackets, blackmail and theft of drug profits—has turned several local law-enforcement agencies into criminal organizations as ruthless as La Cosa Nostra. Official Corruption begins with the lure of easy cash that can corrupt individual officers who, in turn, corrupt associates, until entire precincts are involved in a web of criminal activity.
The New York Police Department’s scandalous “Dirty Thirty” precinct in upper Manhattan involved dozens of officers in the disappearance of confiscated drug money, the shaking down of witnesses, and warrantless paramilitary-style raids. At the height of the scandal, in January 1994, New York City police officers Patrick Brosnan and James Crowe pumped 22 bullets into the backs of Anthony Rosario and Hilton Vega while they lay face down on an apartment floor.
New York was not alone: In Philadelphia, city narcotics officers concocted drug-evidence against innocent people by using drugs in their own possession to justify warrantless searches, many of which resulted in police robberies. The ongoing investigation has resulted in 160 drug convictions being overturned—including a Baptist minister held in a maximum-security prison for three years—and the imprisonment of six narcotics officers. Several other officers are awaiting trial, and an additional 1,800 convictions are under review. In New Orleans, 30 officers involved in a cocaine ring were charged with armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, rape and murder during the early 1990s; additionally, nine officers were indicted on cocaine-distribution charges, one officer was involved in a contract killing, and another is under suspicion as the serial killer who has murdered 24 people since 1991.
The traditional use of police stings has been greatly expanded during the 30-year War on Drugs. Where once undercover police simply pretended to offer their services to criminals in order to catch them in illegal acts, it has become almost routine for corrupt police in the Drug War to encourage illegal activity in order to trap otherwise innocent people.
George Fazekas, of Philadelphia, turned down a pot deal set up by a desperate former associate and a DEA operative, but was arrested despite there being no marijuana or money in the case. Found guilty of attempted possession of marijuana, and because of a prior record, Fazekas received a 32-year federal sentence. Seven years into his incarceration it was discovered that a substantial part of his prior record involved a misdemeanor for which he’d received community service and nearly 20 years of his time was knocked off. Fazekas was so happy with the good news that he jogged around the prison yard, had a heart attack and died.
Marylander Pamela Snow, had her business and home confiscated when one of her kids received a UPS package which contained marijuana. Part of the official “justification” for the forfeiture was the Grateful Dead poster in her son’s bedroom—supposed evidence that the house was a “narcotics-related” meeting place. Pamela still doesn’t know who sent the UPS package but suspects it may have been a police agent.
In some cases police went so far as to operate garden centers aimed at catching marijuana growers. In one, Scott Jones, the owner of a garden center in Pennsylvania, was threatened with 70 years for cultivating marijuana, but allowed to remain free if he would help incarcerate other growers. Over a period of several years Jones not only encouraged gardeners to grow marijuana, but actually provided marijuana plants and set up indoor gardens in return for a share of the profits, all with police approval. Before it was exposed by HIGH TIMES, the sting produced more than 10 arrests and the forfeiture of several homes. In a second case, Indiana police opened and operated a garden center which disseminated marijuana-growing techniques in the hopes of encouraging indoor cannabis cultivation. The operation, which lasted a year, resulted in arrests in 45 locations.
Goodbye, Posse Comitatus
The Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the use of the military in domestic law enforcement, but once again our nation’s War on Drugs has perverted not only the spirit but the letter of the law, permitting the military to operate in several regions of the country.
In the lush woodlands of Northern California, epicenter of America’s outdoor marijuana cultivation, multi-jurisdictional teams of county, state and federal officers survey the mountains and forests for marijuana every fall as part of a coordinated effort called CAMP—the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. But while the illegal use of military equipment in carrying out CAMP is commonplace, in 1990 a genuine military invasion of Humboldt County was staged when the Pentagon sent in hundreds troops to back up federal agents with choppers, jeeps and submachine guns at a remote stretch of land known as the Lost Coast. In Hawaii, the Pentagon-backed eradication effort against pot growing has been waged for more than 10 years. Pesticide-spraying choppers patrol the jungle in what authorities openly view as a test program for eventual export to the mainland. On the Big Island, Air Force RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance jets survey the ground for crops—followed by police choppers with specially-designed pesticide spray-guns, which have caused hundreds of physical ailments and several deaths as a result of poisoning groundwater supplies and edible crops. And on the Mexican border, for the past several years, quietly and with little media coverage, elite Pentagon troops have been moved into position along the Rio Grande and the southern deserts of Arizona and California to back up Border Patrol and state police in anti-drug operations. In 1996 a camouflaged Marine fatally shot an 18-year-old Mexican-American goat herder named Ezequiel Hernandez near Big Bend, Texas, bringing the program before public eye—and throwing it into question before Congress.
New Police Tools In The War on Drugs
The development of new police strategies in the War on Drugs has been a major preoccupation of law-enforcement agencies. We have already seen how the use of asset forfeiture, police stings, children as informants, long prison sentences and the militarization of civilian police forces have been instrumental in making the US the number-one per-capita incarcerator in the Western world. But there are three additional strategies that have been put into place in the past few years that also demand scrutiny: Dual Prosecutions, in which people are prosecutions by both the state and federal authorities for the same crime; the “Three Strikes You’re Out” law, which allow prosecutors to call for life imprisonment with no hope of parole after three drug felonies—even minor possession convictions; and the use of “Courrier Profiles”, the targeting of travellers for investigation based on their physical characteristics. These tools were sold to a gullible public as necessary weapons in the drug warriors’ arsenal because they would allow government agencies to permanently rid the streets of violent, repeat offenders, but the short history of the application of each vividly shows that, like the other new drug-warrior weapons, they have been applied primarily to low-level nonviolent drug users rather than to violent kingpins.
Terry Woodard, an Arkansas man, served two years in state prison after pleading guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, but was subsequently sentenced to 102 years in Federal prison for the same crime. James Melvin was serving six years for a 1989 state offence of selling an ounce of cocaine to a friend, when he was indicted by the Feds as a conspirator in a cocaine distribution ring—for selling the same ounce he was already serving time for—and subsequently sentenced to an additional 14 1/2 years in Federal prison.
Medical-marijuana activist Dennis Peron, faces “Three Strikes Yer Out” with his next conviction. Having racked up two felonies for selling marijuana, he is now exposed to life imprisonment for running the San Francisco Cannabis Buyer’s Club, which distributes marijuana primarily to AIDS, cancer and glaucoma patients. James Deroy, a California inmate serving time for marijuana possession and shoplifting, who now faces life imprisonment for a third felony involving possession of a joint in prison.
And the misuse of ‘Courrier Profiles” is best illustrated by the case of (X) a black horticulturist who, simply because he was travelling through Florida found himself targetted as a drug dealer and wound up losing all of the cash he was carrying to buy new plants for sale in the northeast.
Even as elements in every level of government from local precincts and sheriff’s departments to the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency are ensconsed in the drug trade, the media have sucessfully demonized drug users to the extent that dissent to the frightening wave of Constitutional violations and police overreach has become almost verboten. Even an avowed white separatist like Randy Weaver can become a cause celebre when his family is subject to paramilitary government attack, while the equally egregious case of a Gary Shepherd, the smalltime Kentucky marijuana grower blown away by state police, is forgotten by all but his surviving kin. Has the stigma of marijuana use become greater than that of open racism? Will urban minority communities and white rural communities be pitted against each other despite the common Drug War threat to their liberties? Will we be fooled again?